A city recovered and serene
But Japan is prepared for even the most hapless traveler. Coming through Kansai Airport in Osaka, a series of immaculately dressed airport information officers directed me onto the bus to Kobe. Two preened luggage handlers filed my bag away, glancing at their wristwatches every few seconds, lest the bus leave a second too late. As the bus pulled away into the Osaka night, they lined up at the edge of the sidewalk and deeply bowed until we had rounded the corner.
As I learned later, the 7.3 magnitude Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Kobe as the Philippines Plate slipped under the Eurasian Plate on January 17, 1995 at 5:46 a.m. Killing over 6,000 people and leaving another 300,000 homeless, the tremor also caused over $2 billion in damage to the city, making it, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the “costliest natural disaster to befall any one country.”
I flicked on a sumo match and sampled a glass of my duty-free whiskey before venturing out into the city night, excited about the prospect of exploring new, unknown territory.
Outside the hotel, the boulevards of downtown Kobe were neon-lined in the style favored by Asian metropolises, but in a clean and orderly way, which suggested that Japan is very comfortable being on the cutting edge of advanced technology. A connection to the past also seeped through, in the form of trim Japanese gardens dispersed throughout the downtown area and businessmen standing behind traditionally painted red curtains, sucking udon noodles as steam rose out into the night.
My local friend being occupied for the evening, and buoyed by my shot of scotch, I set out to find an ad-hoc tour guide. I eventually encountered Momo, a French expat and Cordon Bleu-trained chef who worked at Bistrot Cafe de Paris, a fine example of Kobe’s wide range of world-class international restaurants. According to an official brochure the port of Kobe was, in 1868, one of the first Japanese cities to open itself to international trade, and as such has garnered a well-deserved reputation as a cosmopolitan center. The expatriate population, which stands at over 45,000, represent their 100 or more home countries with ethnic restaurants, quaint shops, and quiet neighborhoods.
Momo took me to Bar Trinity near Sannomiya Station, where the owner, an American named Colin, explained to me the course of redevelopment after the earthquake.
“It took 10 years for the private market to fix itself,” he said, going on to extol the many colorful virtues of his chosen home away from home.
“Kobe is more individualistic then Osaka when it comes to food and fashion, and it has a more international flavor. A lot of people come down [from Osaka] to go to all the foreign restaurants. You’ve got everything; French, Thai, Sri Lankan, Indian, you name it.”
He talked about the Venus Bridge, where lovers go to fasten a padlock onto a rack and throw the key over as a declaration of their undying love.
He also mentioned that Kobe is a headquarters of the yakuza, the Japanese mafia famous for their finger-chopping penitence ritual. He said he had never had a problem with them, despite his late-night business. In fact, the yakuza were congratulated by the media after the quake for having provided aid to the community more rapidly than the government. As I made my way back to the hotel through the streets of Sannomiya, I felt that the tips of my pinky fingers were probably safe.
The next morning, I asked the woman at the front desk if she could recommend any destinations that shouldn’t be missed in her city, and she smiled broadly and nodded. When I asked, “Where?” she gave me the same beaming expression and enthusiastic nod. A series of further questions were greeted with the same response. It is apparently the Japanese way of saying, “I don’t understand.” I took a map from the brochure rack and decided to go it alone.
Outside the hotel, the fresh wind that is a trademark of the city blew in off the ocean, the sun shone and sparrows swirled in the air. Effortlessly stylish Kobe-dwellers leisurely biked to work down the tree-lined sidewalks, taxi doors popped open automatically to entice customers, and I wondered what it was that gave the city its distinctly pleasant atmosphere. Heading up toward the low mountains that guard Kobe from the rear, I realized that it was not just the polished cleanliness, but the relaxed sense of order that permeates the streets, giving one a feeling that quality of life is of the utmost importance to the city’s inhabitants. Around every corner there is another Japanese garden or small square where one can take a few moments and enjoy the many examples of public art. The only trace of the damage from the earthquake is a small, unrestored area in the Earthquake Memorial Park near the port.
As I strolled past the Weathercock House and the Tenmangu Shrine in the hillside area of Kitano, where the first Westerners built their homes, the agreeable feeling intensified. It felt like I could have been promenading through Montmartre in Paris, and indeed Kitano has a friendship pact with just that neighborhood.
Lunch was Kobe steak, at the small A-1 Steakhouse in Nakayamate-dori. The flavor was unmistakably special, almost buttery, with a conspicuous natural spice. It was slightly greasy, however, as it had been seared on the pan by being doused in oil and set on fire. The cost, at 6,100 yen ($51) including the price of the Asahi I used to wash it down, was less than it may have been overseas, but a dent in the wallet nonetheless.
The port that covers the entire seafront of the city was the next stop on my walking tour. Despite the obvious signs of massive industry, the port too had a laid-back feel to it. As the evening sun dipped below the mountains, the water was glassy calm, the air was crisp and fresh, and cranes swayed lazily across the sky. Couples walked arm-in-arm around the Harborland entertainment pier, selecting restaurants for a cozy tete-a-tete.
Meeting my Japanese friend in a wood-paneled izakaya, or Japanese pub (Sumibi Yakitori in Kitanagasa-dori), she suggested trying the chicken sashimi to finish off my Japanese experience. The prospect of eating raw chicken made my instincts tie themselves in knots inside my stomach, but I decided to take the plunge. The thinly sliced chicken breast was very lightly seared on the outside layer and, surprisingly, was delicious, with the same soft texture as raw salmon.
It was not until I left Kobe by the light of the next day that I got a real sense of the level of activity involved in the 3 billion yen in manufactured goods shipped through the port annually. The highway between Kobe and Kansai Airport is elevated almost the entire way. Space on the ground below is far too precious for mere tarmac; every last inch teems with warehouses, smokestacks, cranes and silos.
Yet somehow, the port of Kobe has managed to reach an enviable balance between industry and quality of life that certain other Asian cities to the west could learn a lot from.
By Richard Scott-Ashe Contributing Writer [email@example.com]